Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The second of two parts.

It’s not so much a triumph of Pope Benedict XVI himself, but more a victory for the Catholic Church and the Holy Spirit. But when the pope visits the Catholic University of America on Thursday to address Catholic college presidents and diocesan officials, there will be much cause for celebration.

There’s no dispute that the Vatican has long had serious concerns — and not without reason — about the secularization of most American Catholic colleges and universities over the past 40 years. Many of this country’s great Protestant universities have totally secularized, including the Ivy League schools, and the drift from faithful Catholic teaching at many Catholic colleges and universities is still quite evident.

But the Catholic University of America (CUA) in Northeast Washington is different — so much so that the Cardinal Newman Society has identified it as one of 21 Catholic institutions in North America that are models of faithful Catholic higher education. They are profiled in the Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College (www.TheNewmanGuide.com), which includes two other area colleges, Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., and Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md.

Pope Benedict’s televised presence at CUA will bring attention to the great strides made by the church since his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, issued Ex corde Ecclesiae in 1990 to set out a clear vision for Catholic colleges and universities. The world’s attention will be drawn to a Catholic university that gets it right.

Certainly the pope’s choice to visit CUA has much to do with the university’s unique status as the American bishops’ university. Whereas most Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. have cut legal ties with their founding dioceses and religious orders, CUA is governed by a board of both bishops and laypeople, and Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl is chancellor. The theology and canon law departments are specially credentialed to award pontifical degrees.

But there’s more to CUA that deserves notice. While it remains a recognized leader among academic institutions with a variety of undergraduate programs, it is also an outstanding example of fidelity to the church.

It was not always so.

“Catholic University for many years, beginning in the late 1960s, had developed the reputation of being the home of dissent in the Catholic Church,” acknowledged CUA President David O’Connell in a 2006 interview with CUA Magazine. “With all due regard for legitimate academic freedom, which I certainly support, the institution lost a bit of its credibility as the church’s university for many years.”

In 1987, Pope John Paul II visited CUA for another address to Catholic educators and called on Catholic colleges and universities to teach authentic Catholic theology and be Catholic more than just by name. A few years later, the Vatican was hard at work on its guidelines for Catholic higher education, which became Ex corde Ecclesiae. The Vatican also stepped in to remove dissident Father Charles Curran from CUA’s theology faculty — a move finally approved by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Now the former cardinal visits CUA as pope. It is a triumphal visit because CUA has since transformed in the way many American Catholic colleges and universities must, if they are to conform to the Vatican’s standards of Catholic identity.

Much of the improvement at CUA is the result of Father O’Connell’s leadership. In the same 2006 interview, he explained his vision in no uncertain terms: “With our name comes a tremendous amount of responsibility and a tremendous amount of accountability. If we are not willing to be what we say we are, we should close our doors.” Whereas many wayward Catholic colleges and universities have hosted performances of the vile play, “The Vagina Monologues,” Father O’Connell has stood strong in defense of CUA’s Catholic mission.

He told CUA’s campus newspaper, “In addition to the affront and offense posed to Catholic teachings and values by some aspects of the play, it has become a symbol each year of the desire of some folks to push Catholic campuses over the edge of good and decent judgment. Sooner or later, someone has got to simply say ‘enough.’ I am saying ‘enough’ and I’ll take whatever criticism is hurled my way as a badge of honor for CUA, its mission, its values and all that it represents.” That’s the kind of leadership Catholic higher education needs. The willingness, as Father O’Connell has shown, to seek out and hire the best Catholic scholars who have no anti-Catholic agenda. To ensure the teaching of authentic Catholic theology that informs all other studies. To provide a campus life that helps students develop spiritually and morally.

When Pope Benedict visits CUA, he will find an excellent model for the renewal of Catholic higher education. What better place to celebrate the Church’s progress while urging educators further down that road?

Patrick J. Reilly is president and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society.

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